March 25, 2020
By Margaret Colson
The Alabama Baptist
The headlines offer such hope: “Gargling with salt water or vinegar will eliminate the COVID-19 coronavirus from the throat of an infected person’s system.” (False.)
“Sipping water every 15 minutes will prevent a coronavirus infection.” (False.)
“Holding your breath is a simple self-check for coronavirus.” (False.)
Each of those headlines is an actual headline published on the internet, but health officials have debunked these and many others.
So, how can a consumer of information determine fact from fiction, especially in a time of so many unknowns?
And what should a Christian do if false information is being shared as fact?
“Thanks to social media, we are in a truth crisis,” according to Janet Johnson, lecturer and researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas, writing an opinion column for The Dallas Morning News. While Johnson suggested the truth crisis was primarily the product of social media, the truth crisis may be more pervasive.
From social media posts to blogs to news websites, numerous information sources exist today on the internet.
“Until 25 years ago, mass communication was reserved only for professionals, but today, anyone … regardless of credentials, can play journalist,” said Gyromas Newman, associate professor of communication at University of Mobile.
The internet, he said, “changed everything. The problem is there is very little accountability on the internet.”
Michael Clay Carey, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Samford University in Birmingham, agrees.
“Internet access, social media and mobile technologies have made it much easier for anyone who has access to spread information,” he said. “That often works for the betterment of communities, but it also makes it easier for inaccurate or incomplete information to spread. Misinformation and propaganda have been around for a long time, but we are more likely to encounter it today because of the ease and speed with which it can spread.
“That puts a lot more pressure on us as individuals to be thoughtful consumers of information we encounter,” Carey said.
Tips for discerning
“Fortunately, the same online environment that proliferates misinformation also makes fact-checking easy,” Newman said. He offers four tips for discerning fact from fiction.
1. Determine the source of the information. Newman advises identifying the author of the information, considering the kind of website where the information is published and even looking for basic grammatical errors.
“If you can’t find the original source of the information or claims you’re reading, that should be a huge red flag,” Newman said. “Reputable organizations will — or at least should — be transparent about the origin of the facts they present. If the ‘source’ of a suspicious or inflammatory claim is just a link to another blog post where that claim appears, then I’d be wary.”
2. Make sure you understand the purpose of what you’re reading. For example, some websites are satirical in nature. Those stories are not intended to be taken as “legitimate news.” Further, he said, “Some sources may openly promote a certain ideology. If so, be cautious.”
3. Don’t just get your news from social media. “If you’re scrolling through and a story interests you, read it if you like, but do your homework before you believe it or pass it on,” Newman said. He suggests examining the news story on numerous credible websites to help determine its veracity.
“We can, and should, research what we see and read,” Newman said of social media. “Was that photo we saw really taken this week, or is it an old image that is making its way around social media again? Was the controversial quote, presented to us in a vacuum on Facebook, taken out of context? It is especially important to do this kind of homework before we share something produced by a source that we may not be familiar with.”
4. Trust God for discernment. “Finally, but most importantly, keep your prayer life right,” Newman said. “Scripture makes it clear that the Lord gives wisdom generously to those who ask, so ask. Trust Him to give you the wisdom of discernment, and you’ll benefit not only in the media world but also in your daily relationships.”
Finding a trusted information source
When looking for a trusted source for information, Newman said, “As a general rule, traditional, mainstream news sources are best. There has been growing mistrust of traditional news, especially over the past two decades, but that mistrust, at least as far as the fabrication of information is concerned, is largely unfounded.”
While some news sources, particularly cable news networks, may tend to lean more conservative or liberal, which is called “framing” or “second-level agenda sources,” they still are accountable for presenting facts. Those facts may be presented in different ways, however. For example, if two news organizations were reporting on the same protest, one organization might produce a video of protestors marching with signs and another organization might produce a video of protestors being arrested. Both reported facts, but from different angles.
For that reason, Carey emphasized, “It is important to get news from a variety of different organizations, not just one single organization or from organizations that share ideological perspectives.”
Consulting multiple sources “is the best way to combat the framing effect and get the most honest picture of the issue,” Newman said. “However, there’s not one source that’s completely trustworthy all of the time. Remember, treat nothing as gospel, except the gospel.”
Pointing out misinformation
When misinformation, either intentional or unintentional, occurs, it’s valuable to “acknowledge inaccurate or misleading information when we see it,” Carey said. “It’s easy to dismiss intentional efforts to mislead as, ‘Well, it’s just the internet.’ But misinformation has consequences.”
Newman emphasized “our duty as U.S. citizens and as Christians” is to respectfully point out error.
“Another problem with the anonymity of the internet is people feel like they can be jerks to one another. Don’t be that person.
“We must each do our part to correct misinformation and be beacons for the truth as God calls us to be. As Edmund Burke said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Do your part!”